BAGHDAD (AP) — Supporters of an influential Iraqi Shia cleric fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into Iraq’s Green Zone and security forces returned fire on Tuesday, severely escalating a months-long political crisis gripping the country.
The death toll has risen to at least 30 people after two days of unrest, officials said.
After cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced on Monday that he would be stepping down from politics, his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the US military stronghold that now houses Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. At least one country has evacuated its embassy amid the chaos.
The Iraqi government has been at a standstill since al-Sadr’s party won most of its seats in October’s parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government – sparking months of infighting between various Shia factions. Al-Sadr refused to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shia rivals, and his withdrawal Monday catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty and volatility with no clear path.
Iran closed its borders to Iraq on Tuesday – a sign of Tehran’s concern that chaos could spread, although the streets outside the capital’s government district remained largely calm. The country’s vital oil continued to flow, with global benchmark Brent falling slightly at $103 a barrel.
A day after the storming of the Green Zone, al-Sadr supporters could be seen on live television firing both heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily congested area through a section of demolished concrete walls. Security forces armed with machine guns sporadically fired back into the zone.
Some bystanders filmed the gunfight on their cell phones, but most hid behind still standing sections of the wall and shuddered as bullets cracked nearby. As al-Sadr’s troops fired, a line of armored tanks stood on the other side of the barriers surrounding the Green Zone, though they didn’t use their heavy guns.
At least one injured man from al-Sadr’s forces was transported in a three-wheeled rickshaw, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible in the background. Heavy black smoke rose over the area at one point, visible from miles (miles) away.
At least 30 people have been killed and more than 400 injured, two Iraqi medical officials said. The toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests the day before and overnight clashes. Those numbers are expected to rise, the officials said, speaking on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to journalists.
Members of Iraq’s majority Shia Muslim population were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country for decades. The 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, a Sunni, changed the political order. Just under two-thirds of Iraq is Shia, with a third Sunni.
Now the Shias are fighting amongst themselves after the Americans largely withdrew from the nation, with Iran-backed Shias and Iraqi nationalist Shias vying for power, influence and state resources.
It is an explosive rivalry in a country where many remain under the influence of the Iranian government, even as trade and ties between peoples remain strong. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war in the 1980s that killed a million people.
Al-Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and reform agenda resonates strongly with his supporters, who largely come from the poorest sectors of Iraq’s society and have historically been excluded from the political system under Saddam.
Al-Sadr’s announcement that he is leaving politics has implicitly given his supporters the freedom to act as they see fit.
Iranian state television cited unrest and an army-imposed curfew in Iraqi cities as the reason for the border closures. It urged Iranians to avoid traveling to the neighboring country. The decision came as millions of people prepared to visit Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shia sites, and Tehran encouraged all Iranian pilgrims already in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.
Kuwait, meanwhile, called on its citizens to leave Iraq. The state-run KUNA news agency also encouraged those hoping to go to Iraq to delay their plans.
The tiny Gulf Arab sheikhdom of Kuwait shares a 254-kilometre border with Iraq.
The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy in the Green Zone, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra tweeted on Tuesday morning.
“There are firefights around the embassy in Baghdad. Our employees now work at the German embassy elsewhere in the city,” writes Hoekstra.
Dubai’s long-haul airline Emirates canceled flights to Baghdad on Tuesday amid ongoing unrest. The airline said it was “closely monitoring the situation”. It did not say when flights would resume.
On Monday, protesters loyal to al-Sadr pulled down the concrete barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke through the palace gates. Many rushed to the opulent salons and marble halls of the palace, an important meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
The Iraqi military announced a nationwide curfew and the outgoing prime minister suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence.